The 2016 Virgin Australia Supercars Championship was one of the most competitive years in the history of the series. A staggering 11 different full-time drivers stood at the top of the podium with the first repeat winner not coming until Scott McLaughlin’s domination at Phillip Island. The season kept on-lookers on the edge of their seats with the lead of the championship often changing and close finishes in the year’s big races. While it was one of the favourites who emerged the victor, as in every sport there are always losers and promising contenders left wondering why form or fortune abandoned them. Jordan Mulach looks back over another incredible season and picks out his winners and losers from one of the best years in recent memory.
- Shane van Gisbergen came into the season as a fresh face within the Triple Eight organisation. Although familiar with the machinery having steered a Triple Eight built car at customer team TEKNO Autosports in 2015, some thought the New Zealander would use the first year to learn. Ever the racer though, the Giz jumped straight in to the challenge, immediately taking the fight to his six-time champion team mate, winning his first race for the Red Bull Racing Australia team just four races in to the season. In the straight-up fights over the 29 races, it was often the #97 which prevailed. His racing against Whincup showed he wasn’t afraid to race hard and fair. The Enduro Cup was the strong point for van Gisbergen, taking it out with three second placings and a win, his performances at the Bathurst 1000 and the Sandown 500 being the standouts. His drive to win the championship in the Homebush finale, despite a drive-through penalty, will go down as one of his best drives so far in his career, as he sliced his way through the pack from 22nd to end up on the podium. The #97 was a deserving and unsurprising winner this year, delivering New Zealand its first ATCC/Supercars champion since Jim Richards in 1991, and the first driver to win in his first year with a team since Craig Lowndes with HRT in 1996.
- Jamie Whincup may not have won a seventh championship but the Red Bull driver showed 10 years on from his breakthrough year at Triple Eight he still has the hunger to win more than ever. While mistakes sometimes characterised his season and will leave him to think about what might have been, he yet again made headlines putting himself into more pages of the Supercars history books. At Sydney Motorsport Park, he became only the second driver to win a century of races, at the end of the season only one win off equalling Craig Lowndes. Only errors by himself and co-driver Paul Dumbrell at Bathurst and Sandown respectively pushed him down in the points, and possibly away from another title. The major surprise of the season is that it took Whincup and van Gisbergen most of the year until they had their first incident, the former spinning himself and the latter at Pukekohe. At the end of the day, it was the new boy to the team who won, but the relatively old hand put up a good fight that will make their 2017 title fight as exciting as the first.
- Scott McLaughlin had a standout year that cemented him as a future title contender, finally getting a reliable car underneath him to cash the cheques his talent writes. In his fourth full time year in the Supercars championship and his last with Garry Rogers Motorsport, the young Kiwi was able to stop Triple Eight from posting a perfect one-two-three championship finish, spoiling the party with his best championship position yet. McLaughlin’s mature racecraft was on show at Phillip Island where he dominated qualifying and the races to clean sweep the weekend. His first lap battle with Whincup cemented the belief that he will one day be a champion with the right car under him. Consistency became the key when he couldn’t win, though he was never afraid of having a battle to prove his worth. He moves to the DJR Team Penske camp next year, switching from Volvo to Ford, a major change in the still young career of the 2012 Dunlop Series champion. 2017 will give him a good chance to show if he and the mega-team have what it takes to become the best.
- Will Davison left the ailing Erebus at the end of 2015, deciding to join Tekno Autosports so he could get behind the wheel of a Triple Eight car. The result was a fine year, taking a win early in the season at Tasmania and consistently running in the top ten. The highlight of the year was Bathurst where he and team owner, Jonothan Webb won against the odds. Davison held off a hard-charging van Gisbergen to give the Tekno team its first Bathurst 1000 win, including the first for Webb who had previously come close. Davison’s fifth placing in the championship was a return to form as well as helping Triple Eight put four cars in the top five championship positions.
- Tim Slade may already have the widest jaw in the paddock short of the Armor All man but his grin went from ear to ear getting his first wins in his career. In his first year at Brad Jones Racing, Slade carried good testing results in to the Winton round. A genuinely fast race car and a hungry driver are a good combination, Slade proving so by dominating both races. Taking home two trophies to Albury, the team proved that it had found a good driver to replace Fabian Coulthard. Eventually coming home eighth in the standings, Slade showed that he is a good pilot with the right equipment behind him.
- Prodrive Racing Australia went from heroes to zeroes this season, only one driver from the team winning and a lack of strong results. As defending series champions, they were looking to capitalise on a dominant 2015 hoping to carry the form in to 2016. That plan did not come to fruition; while all four drivers scored at least one pole position throughout the year, it was only the reigning champion Mark Winterbottom that got a win, one victory at Barbagallo and one at Pukekohe. The Ford faithful would not be pleased with the results, especially being trumped again by Triple Eight and now GRM in the teams championship. With Jason Bright incoming and Super Black outgoing next season, they’ll be looking to turn their hopes around in search of another season victory.
- Erebus Motorsport had another year to forget, despite promising changes from the previous iterations of the squad. Moving from Mercedes E63 AMG cars to using Walkinshaw customer VF Commodores was change enough, but to also move from the Gold Coast to Melbourne might be contributing factors as to why the team struggled so much this season. You’d have to feel sorry for David Reynolds who went from a champion team to only scoring one podium for the year, in the last race. Then there was Aaren Russell whose sponsor had a falling out with the team, leaving him out of a drive. Reynolds and co-driver Craig Baird were then excluded from the Sandown 500 after Baird failed to make the minimum number of laps. For team owner Betty Kilmenko to claim the team was in a rookie year is a bit rich. Anything can be better than this year where the team was reduced to being backmarkers and rolling roadblocks.
- Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport again posted another year of stunning mediocrity, with drivers Andre Heimgartner and Nick Percat finishing the year 25th and 18th. For Heimgartner, it was a harsh welcome back to reality after his mixed bag debut with Prodrive. Percat was, at times, genuinely impressive. His win at the Adelaide 500 shocked most of the paddock, especially given that the only reason they made the minimum fuel drop was because the team forgot to fill the car before the race. He was also able to deliver the team a podium at Bathurst though again it was a case of right place, right time. If the finish line was another 400 metres down the road, he wouldn’t have stood on the rostrum. Without Percat as a half-decent driver, LDM will have to struggle to find someone who can join the organisation and post good results.
- James Moffat decided to move from Nissan to Volvo in the off season, joining his close friend McLaughlin at the Swedish squad. Unfortunately, a string of bad luck and issues meant it was one of his worst seasons in the championship. Mechanical unreliability and poor qualifying was the trend for Moffat, retiring from three races and only posting one top five result. Sandown was a shocker, where after a strong grid position, a deflating tyre sent the car, with James Golding behind the wheel, in to the fence and out of the race. Bathurst saw the pair doing well, until the Volvo engine did its best impression of a hand grenade. GRM would be more than happy to send that engine back to the overlords in Sweden. With uncertainty over what may happen with the team’s cars and engines next year, Moffat will be looking to get better results than 2016.
- Malaysia may have been a happy place for Australian F1 fans in 2016 (more Ricciardo winning than a bunch of idiots being arrested) but the country missed out on hosting its first Supercars race due to legal issues. One car from each make represented the category when they went for a demo run in 2015. Comments from the Supercars fraternity were sceptical of the event and those concerns turned out to be correct. The loss of the event from the calendar was a surprise to no one and meant a break of more than a month between races, an agonising wait for fans of the sport. It’s unlikely the race will go ahead, not much of a loss to Australian fans.
Soon to 2017. The field is getting tighter, the racecraft is getting better and the drivers are getting more desperate to win. It’s already hotting up to be another great season as we enter the last all V8 year, and a significant change in the history of the championship.